'93 Pinellas oil slick doesn't compare to mammoth BP spill
By Rob Shaw | Tribune StaffForget those apple-orange comparisons when it comes to linking the 1993 oil spill that blackened Pinellas County beaches with the ever-growing menace in today's Gulf of Mexico.
Published: May 3, 2010
Published: May 3, 2010
Think instead raisins-watermelons.
"That was a tanker,'' park supervisor Jim Wilson said of the August 1993 spill that stained 14 miles of beaches and turned Fort DeSoto into a hospital for hundreds of oil-saturated birds. "This is an ongoing incident.''
George Henderson, who has been called out of retirement to help the state in relief efforts, puts it another way.
"It dwarfs it in size, it dwarfs it in kinds of oil, it dwarfs it in location,'' said Henderson, called in to help the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "There are lots of things that make it unique.
My fear is that the well will continue to leak for several months.''
Before now, Aug. 10, 1993, was the day that lived in oil spill infamy in the Tampa Bay area. That's when three ships collided in a fiery tangle in the shipping channel near the Sunshine Skyway, fouling area beaches with 330,000 gallons of thick No. 6 fuel oil.
Lee Fox, founder of Save Our Seabirds, remembers pelicans so heavily coated with oil that she could not even tell what kind of bird they were. And baby turtles smaller than her hand trying to wade their way through the thick goo to get to the water.
Pam Prell, who works in the clerk's office at the city of St. Pete Beach, recalls the smell of rotten eggs and the exhausted faces of workers who labored in the sizzling summer sun to clean up the beaches.
"I remember almost every single minute,'' said Fox, the Wimauma woman who is waiting on a call to head wherever oil comes ashore in Florida to help birds in the latest spill. "It is an experience I will never forget. In comparison to what is going on right now, it is minuscule.''
Prell recalled that the old city hall in southern Pinellas County was used as a staging area where workers shoveling the oil from the beaches would come for breaks.
"If you walked on the beach, you got oil on your feet,'' Prell said. "There was nobody out on the beach. There was no activity at all.''
Except for men in protective suits toting shovels and scooping oil. And big tractors toiling endlessly.
For a while, the thick oil from the spill clustered atop the water was heading offshore. A few days later, however, that changed with the whims of the wind.
"I think it showed us how quickly an oil spill can turn around and go some place you don't expect it to,'' said Peter Clark, executive director of Tampa Bay Watch, a local environmental group.
The oil swamped southern and middle Pinellas beaches. The area around John's Pass was especially hard hit.
Clark coordinated with boaters to get to the islands where birds were most affected.
"The birds that were caught in the heavy material were so covered in oil they could not get themselves off the ground and into the trees,'' Clark said. "It was really sad.''
The good news from 1993 is that authorities knew just how much oil had spilled. The oil also mainly washed ashore on beaches, where it was easier to clean up, instead of in mangroves and other environmentally sensitive areas.
Today, no one knows where the oil from the mammoth offshore Louisiana spill will end up.
"It's scary to think it could be coming again,'' said Prell. "If we don't have any beach, we don't have much of a town out here. We rely on the beach.''
Reporter Rob Shaw can be reached at (813) 259-7999.